Housing challenges persist in many First Nations across northern Ontario — and 200 delegates have travelled to a Thunder Bay conference to discuss solutions this week.

The theme of the conference is "making houses ... homes.” That's one thing the Batchewana First Nation has been working hard to do.

The community’s tenant liaison is hoping to gather information at the conference to help Batchewana tackle a chronic problem: mould.

“The issue we are having back home is a lot of mould issues with our older homes,” Lisa McCormick said. “So I'm looking into mould remediation and mould education for the tenants themselves.”  

First Nation Northern Housing Conference organizer Chuck Hebert said having delegates from 80 First Nation communities provides a unique opportunity to brainstorm about solutions.

Chuck Hebert

First Nation Northern Housing Conference organizer Chuck Hebert says he's seen a vast improvement in First Nations housing over the years. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

“Our groups have decided to come together, to work together,” he said.

“[We are] combining efforts [and] combining resources to help address these issues, answer problems and offer solutions.”

Lack of housing persists

He said First Nations “are always pushing for better housing, better building practice, looking at sustainability in housing and improved living.”

“If you have a safe home to go to, it improves your quality of life. We are trying to go above and beyond whatever the code minimum says to ensure you have the best possible product for your home,” Hebert said.

Hebert, who said he has been working in northern housing for almost 16 years, said he’s seen “a vast improvement” in housing and labour skills. But that doesn’t solve the reality there is still a lack of housing for First Nation communities.

“In every community I work in there is still a huge backlog of housing,” he said. “There is a much greater demand than there is supply of housing. The need, right now, in most communities, really out races what can be done."

McCormick added they are finding “a lot more people want to move back to the community.”

Celebrating innovation

Hebert said the gathering this week also highlights forward-thinking about First Nations housing.

The communities of Constance Lake and Batchewana First Nations will be honoured for innovation.

"We got the innovation award for our new tenant orientation process,” McCormick said.

“It is very unique in all First Nations communities. What it entails is that we actually let the tenants have a say in the selection of the type of house they want built — their counter tops, flooring etc. We feel it will instill pride in their home and they will take care of it a little better."

Conference delegates can also visit a trade show featuring businesses and contractors involved in the housing sector.